Film Review: They Live (1988)

Also known as: John Carpenter’s They Live (complete title)
Release Date: November 4th, 1988
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage)
Based on: Eight O’Clock In the Morning by Ray Nelson
Music by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Raymond St. Jacques, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden, Jason Robards III, John Carpenter (voice – uncredited), Al Leong (uncredited)

Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions, Universal Pictures, Carolco Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” – Nada

I remember wanting to see this in the theater so damn badly but no one would take me because I was nine years-old and my family was being really lame about it. To make up for that, I rented the hell out of this when my local video store got their copies in. In fact, I eventually dubbed a copy because that was the benefit of having two VCRs in the ’80s and ’90s. I think I still have it buried in one of my many boxes of old VHS tapes that I haven’t been able to play for fifteen years.

Anyway, They Live is a spectacular film.

While it’s not John Carpenter’s best, it’s pretty high up on the list and it is my favorite film to star wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Considering that this also has Keith David in it, there’s almost too much testosterone and gravitas that I don’t know how the celluloid didn’t melt from the masculine heat.

The story is pretty simple: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper shows up in town, tries to earn some honest money and work towards the American dream but soon finds out that the world is completely fucked because it’s been taken over by aliens hiding in plain sight. How does he discover this truth? With special sunglasses. Seriously, what the fuck is there not to like about this picture?

Also, this has, hands down, the greatest one-on-one brawl in the entire history of Western cinema. A fight so epic and so perfect that its choreography was stolen for the infamous “Cripple Fight” episode of South Park.

The film also features Meg Foster and her eyes that can melt steel, Buck Flower playing not just a hobo, Carpenter regular Peter Jason, as well as blaxploitation veteran Raymond St. Jacques, the cool Sy Richardson and an uncredited bit part for the greatest motion picture henchman of all-time, Al Leong.

As is usually the case with most Carpenter films, this one benefits greatly from his score. It’s brooding, sets the perfect tone and just has the right kind of vibe to enchant your mind and pull you into this cool and crazy film.

I also like the physical atmosphere in general and how Carpenter used daytime and nighttime as a sort of narrative tool, drawing allusions to the seen world and the unseen world in this story. I also liked how the special sunglasses displayed reality in black and white while the visible world was in full color. I’m not sure if that was decided upon in the initial draft of this story or if it was a convenience in pulling off certain effects that still worked and added another layer of duality.

They Live is just solid, all around. It’s one of those movies I can watch anytime and it’s just cool as hell.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other John Carpenter films of the ’80s.

Film Review: Bates Motel (1987)

Release Date: July 5th, 1987 (TV)
Directed by: Richard Rothstein
Written by: Richard Rothstein
Based on: Psycho by Robert Bloch
Music by: J. Peter Robinson
Cast: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Gregg Henry, Khrystyne Haje, Jason Bateman, Kerrie Keane, Robert Picardo, Buck Flower, Carmen Filpi

Universal Television, NBC, 90 Minutes

Review:

“[referring to the urn] Oh that’s not saki, that’s Norman.” – Alex West

Let me start off by saying that this television movie is terrible. However, I still kind of dug it and felt that it had some good seeds planted in what could have been a solid television series had this feature length pilot been picked up by NBC and developed into a full series. Granted, it needed some time and experimentation to find its footing but I think it could’ve gotten there.

The main thing I liked about this was the top three members of the cast: Bud Cort, Lori Petty and Moses Gunn.

Also, it was a really cool take and reinvention of the Psycho film franchise that could have stood on its own, given enough time to grow and find its groove.

What hurts this pilot “movie” the most is its editing and pacing. It’s clearly a mish mash of two episodes that don’t work when wedged together. On their own, they probably would’ve been fine but it ruins the three act structure and narrative flow.

I guess this is how it had to be presented though, as the show wasn’t picked up by NBC but they probably wanted to make their money back, so they stitched it together and sold it as a “movie of the week” release. Which, probably worked out, as Psycho fever was pretty strong in the ’80s once Anthony Perkins turned the classic film into a four movie franchise starting with 1983’s Psycho II.

I have always liked Bud Cort and I always thought Lori Petty was just a really cool chick. This didn’t change my opinion of either actor and I enjoyed their scenes and thought they had a fun chemistry.

In the end, this really is a dud but it is still worth a watch for those who love the Psycho franchise and haven’t seen it. It’s pretty rare and mostly forgotten but it is on YouTube, at least for the moment. Although, that version is a crappy VHS rip. I still found it watchable but I also have a high tolerance for thirty-plus year old VHS tapes.

Rating: 4/10
Pairs well with: the ’80s Psycho sequels and anthology horror/sci-fi television shows of the era.

Film Review: Escape From New York (1981)

Also known as: John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (complete title), Escape From New York City (script title)
Release Date: April 1st, 1981 (USA Film Festival)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter, Nick Castle
Music by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Issac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Frank Doubleday, Nancy Stephens, Buck Flower, Ox Baker, John Diehl, Carmen Filpi, Jamie Lee Curtis (voice)

Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors, Goldcrest Films International, 99 Minutes, 106 Minutes (extended version)

Review:

“It’s the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don’t give a shit about.” – Bob Hauk

When I was a really young kid, walking up and down the aisles of mom and pop video stores throughout Florida, I always used to come across the box art for Escape From New York and stare in awe. It’s one of the coolest and most iconic posters of all-time. Luckily for those who have seen the movie, it actually lives up to the incredible art that adorned the walls of movie theaters and video cassette boxes.

In fact, I’d call this the second most quintessential Kurt Russell movie just behind Big Trouble In Little China. The reason that other film gets the slight edge is because it shows the fun, comedic side of Russell more so than his gruffer more badass performance as Snake Plissken in this movie. Still, this is Kurt Russell at his absolute best and it’s not a surprise to me that he views this film as his favorite.

What’s great about this movie though, is that it doesn’t need to be carried by Russell. You’ve got a pretty solid ensemble cast of great character actors, all of whom bring their A-game and make this a much better picture than it would have been otherwise.

John Carpenter tapped the well of talent that he’s familiar with in Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins, Frank Doubleday, Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis (doing a voice cameo) but he also brought in legends like Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine and Issac Hayes. There are even bit parts for guys who are in a ton of flicks, most notably John Diehl, whose death I still haven’t gotten over in Miami Vice, and Carmen Filpi, who always played the old crazy guy in everything.

The film is about a post-apocalyptic New York City that is walled off from the rest of America and is now run by ruthless gangs. Snake is sent in to rescue the President, who is being held hostage by the baddest of all the gangs. If he fails, he will be killed by an implant that was injected into him. Honestly, that’s a little plot detail that was probably stolen for the Suicide Squad comics and movie. But then again, the whole concept of a walled off metropolis run by gangs was also stolen for the superb Batman story No Man’s Land.

That being said, this film created a lot of urban post-apocalyptic tropes that other films, television shows, books and comics would heavily borrow from.

John Carpenter really made magic with this film though. It was one of those perfect storm scenarios where everything seemed to go right, at least if you’re looking at the final product.

The film looks great, sounds great and has such a thick, brooding atmosphere that there really isn’t anything else like it. Sure, people have tried to emulate and recreate what this movie was but no one else has come close to it. Not even Carpenter, who gave us the sequel Escape From L.A., fifteen years later.

It’s hard to peg what makes this film so great but if I had to, I’d say that it’s everything. From the cast, the visual style, the story and the musical score, which was done by Carpenter, himself, and Alan Howarth, every thing just works and comes together like a perfect casserole.

Escape From New York is moody and cool. It’s a great example of Carpenter using all of his strengths and sort of misdirecting away from his weaknesses. While this isn’t his best film, it’s in his top two or three and definitely takes the cake out of his action flicks.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: it’s sequel, as well as other ’80s and ’90s John Carpenter movies.

Film Review: Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)

Also known as: Tanny and the Teenage T-Rex (Singapore)
Release Date: December 21st, 1994
Directed by: Stewart Raffill
Written by: Gary Brockette, Stewart Raffill
Music by: Jack Conrad, Tony Riparetti
Cast: Denise Richards, Theo Forsett, Paul Walker, Ellen Dubin, Terry Kiser, Buck Flower, Efren Ramirez

Greenline Productions, Platinic Films Inc., 82 Minutes, 88 Minutes (R-rated “gore” cut)

Review:

“Oh, Michael what have they done to you?” – Tammy

So I heard that there is an R-rated “gore cut” of this film being released later this year. I guess the version that was shown in Asia was much gorier but the US video release of the film is severely toned down.

Regardless, I wanted to check this film out in its regular US version, as it’s a cult classic but incredibly obscure. On a side note, for those who want to watch this, it is on YouTube, at the moment.

This is a goofy, over the top and ridiculous film. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun and it works for what it is.

The average person would probably watch five minutes of this and turn it off, deeming it shit. But it’s that special kind of shit that if you stare at it long enough, it blasts you in the face with colorful, enjoyable and overwhelming insanity.

It’s endearing and charming in spite of its immense flaws. It will resonate with those of us who have a love for films like Mac and Me (the same director), The Room and Troll 2.

The premise is batshit crazy. A mad scientist played by Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s takes the brain of Paul Walker and puts it inside of a mechanical dinosaur. No, not a real dinosaur… but a mechanical one like the full scale animatronic T-Rex robots that you’d see in shopping malls or seasonal science attractions in the ’90s.

The film also stars Denise Richards, who in her prime, was the hottest girl I had ever seen. Especially, through my teenage eyes in the ’90s. Plus, she was really charming and sweet in this and it’s damn near impossible to not get pulled in by her. I also really enjoyed her gay friend in this, as he was f’n hilarious in every scene.

Tammy and the T-Rex is a film that is sort of perfect as a bad movie that’s so bad it’s great.

My only real complaint about it is the butchered editing. But I blame that on the complete exclusion of the gore that the film intended to show. So hopefully, the soon to be released “gore cut” fixes those issues. And honestly, the inclusion of the gore may take this film to the next level and vastly improve upon it.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other Stewart Raffill movies: Mac and Me, The Ice Pirates, etc.

Film Review: Back to the Future, Part II (1989)

Also known as: Paradox (fake working title)
Release Date: November 20th, 1989 (Century City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Flea, James Tolkan, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Jeffrey Weissman, Charles Fleischer, Jason Scott Lee, Elijah Wood, Joe Flaherty, Buck Flower, Marc McClure (uncredited), Crispin Glover (archive footage), Mary Ellen Trainor (uncredited)

Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 108 Minutes

Review:

“The almanac. Son of a bitch stole my idea! He must have been listening when I… it’s my fault! The whole thing is my fault. If I hadn’t bought that damn book, none of this would have ever happened.” – Marty McFly

Back to the Future is pretty much a perfect film. Back to the Future, Part II isn’t perfect but it’s so damn good, it’s hard to see the flaws unless you really look for them and then, they’re mostly narrative issues that can be dismissed if you look at this with a Doctor Who “timey wimey” sentiment.

This chapter in the classic and awesome film series sees our heroes go to the future, return to an alternate present and then take a trip back to the past where we saw them in the first film. Part II takes you to more places than the other two films combined but it works really well for the middle act of this three act trilogy. It also does the best job of showing the consequences that can arise from disrupting the timeline.

I think that this has the most layered plot and with that, tells a more complicated story. I remember some people back in 1989 saying it was kind of hard to follow but these were also people significantly older than me. As a ten year-old, I thought it all made sense and I still do. Granted, there are some other paradoxes that this would have created and the film just conveniently ignores them but if it were to follow science to a T it would have broke the movie.

The cast is still solid in this film but Crispin Glover is sorely missed. I really wish he had returned to this just because I think it would have made the story better. While he appears in archive footage and another actor stands in for him and wears a mask of his face, this all lead to a major lawsuit that forced Hollywood to change how they use the likeness of non-contracted actors.

While I can’t say that this is better than the first movie, it is my favorite to revisit just for all the things it throws at you. It’s certainly the most entertaining overall and it sort of embraces the absurdity of its subject matter without overdoing it. It’s mostly a comedy but it is balanced well with its more dramatic moments. There is an underlying darkness in this chapter that the other two movies don’t have and I think it gives it a bit of an edginess lacking in the other two. Not that they needed to be edgy but that element works well here.

Back to the Future, Part II is how you do a sequel. It upped the ante, was more creative than its predecessor and enriched its universe, giving it more depth while developing its characters further.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: the other two Back to the Future movies, as well as ’80s Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante Films.

Film Review: Back to the Future (1985)

Release Date: July 3rd, 1985
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, James Tolkan, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George DiCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton, Courtney Gains, Buck Flower, Huey Lewis (cameo)

Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.” – Dr. Emmett Brown

Back to the Future is a classic, which makes it kind of hard to review. It’s a film I’ve put off reviewing for awhile because I can’t really come up with anything other than paragraphs of praise. It’s perfect.

Do I need to run through all the regular tidbits about it having a great story, script, director, cast, composer, cinematographer, special effects department and everything else under the sun?

I’m reviewing this right after I reviewed RoboCop, which I also gave a 10 out of 10. But don’t take that score lightly, it is really hard for me to give out 10s but this film certainly deserves it and maybe even a score slightly beyond that. The only other movie from my childhood that can really compete for this as the best film from that era is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While the Roger Eberts, Gene Siskels and Pauline Kaels have their Citizen KaneVertigo and Seven Samurai, I have Raiders of the Lost ArkEmpire Strikes Back and Back to the Future. These are my generation’s classics and even though they are much more modern, their greatness can’t be denied. Well, unless you’re completely devoid of taste.

This film was a perfect storm, even if it had some major production issues early on. But those issues led to this and it’s hard to imagine that a film with a slightly different cast would have been as good as this ended up being.

If you haven’t seen this film already, I don’t understand what you’ve been doing with all of your time on this planet. If you have seen it and don’t like it, we probably won’t be friends.

This is, hands down, one of the absolute best films of the 1980s, regardless of genre or style. There are other movies that one can refer to as “perfect” but how many are actually this fun?

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Back to the Future movies, as well as ’80s Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante Films.

Film Review: Mac And Me (1988)

Also known as: Mi amigo Mac (Spanish title)
Release Date: August 12th, 1988
Directed by: Stewart Raffill
Written by: Steve Feke, Stewart Raffill
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Christine Ebersole, Jonathan Ward, Tina Caspary, Lauren Stanley, Jade Calegory, Buck Flower

New Star Entertainment, Vision International, Orion Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“You know what I feel like?” – Michael Cruise, “A Big Mac?” – Eric Cruise, “The man’s psychic!” – Michael Cruise

If you look at this as a 99 minute advertisement for McDonald’s and Coke, it’s not that bad. And really, isn’t that what this actually is?

As a kid, I kind of assumed that Mac was a new character in McDonlad’s roster that includes Ronald McDonald, Birdie, Grimace, the Hamburglar and the Fry Guys. I mean, “Mac” even fits perfectly within the McGimmick. But no, I guess this was supposed to be a real movie.

Now this is one of many blatant ripoffs of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. These films were a dime a dozen in the ’80s just as much as Gremlins ripoffs were.

This is also universally panned by just about everyone. However, the hatred towards it is by loads of people that haven’t actually seen it. They just read things on the Internet and have heard the legends about Mac And Me for decades. And while I remembered mostly liking this in 1988, I hadn’t seen it in a really long time and wasn’t sure how it would hold up.

Seeing this now, as it was finally lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the newest season, I still don’t think it’s as bad as the hype would want you to believe.

Now this is still a bad movie but it has a charm that most bad movies don’t. It’s ’80s cheese of the highest caliber and that can be a good or bad thing but it helps this picture, in my opinion. Also, all the kids were really likable and that goes a long way for me in a movie like this.

The story is cookie cutter and the high point is a big party at McDonald’s, which features Mac the Alien disguised as a teddy bear, dancing on tables and flying around the restaurant. But the scene is so bizarre and ’80s kitsch that it’s hard not to love if you grew up in that decade and have a soft spot for really weird, goofy shit.

But I get it, people will always have fun trashing this movie because it’s a bizarre and bad film by critical standards. Looking beyond that, though, it’s still entertaining, fun and lighthearted in a good way. At it’s core, the film is actually kind of sweet.

There are plot holes galore and a lot of things don’t make sense but it doesn’t necessarily need to. This wasn’t made to make you think, it was made to make you smile… and buy lots of Big Macs and Coke products.

Also, I loved the intensity of the Alan Silvestri score.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: other blatant ripoffs of E.T. but if I’m being honest, this is the best of the lot. This also plays well as a double feature with Spaced Invaders.